Something extraordinary happened in Russia recently. That much most people seem agreed upon.
But for all the excitement of unfathomable giant-killings and last-gasp goals, and the surprise and joy at what great hosts the Russians turned out to be, the real miracle of Moscow took place before a ball was kicked at World Cup 2018.
For a tournament in which teamwork and togetherness trumped star power and individualism as the template for successful modern day international football – just look at the two finalists France and Croatia and the way they play - the mood was set in an unprecedented coming together of nations embracing ‘Football for Friendship’ - and it was with children leading the way.
Children from almost every country and territory in the world had gathered in Moscow in the run up to the finals, charged with ‘changing the world’ and reclaiming the spirit of the 'beautiful game'.
By contrast and for all its enjoyment, some barely suppressed hostility between rival nations boiled over among the adult professionals when the World Cup finals itself got underway. Most notably naturalized Swiss ethnic Kosovan goal scorers angered Serbia with their ‘politicised’ goal celebrations in Switzerland’s win against the Serbs. And the Serbian coach sensationally likened to a ‘war crime’ the German referee’s refusal to award his team a penalty.
Defending champions Germany were embroiled in a nationalism row with ethnic Turks in their squad – that subsequently saw Mesut Ozil quit the team – and went home early.
Meanwhile the children of Kosovo and Serbia – which does not even recognize the former as a nation, a bitter legacy of historical tensions and the 1990s Balkan conflict – lived, ate and happily played football together at the sixth, and by far largest, Football for Friendship International Children's Social Programme. As did the representatives of other deeply conflicted and, in some cases, even currently officially warring nations - Syria, Iraq, Sudan, South Sudan, Afghanistan - from the world over.
Those warring nations were all there coexisting happily. Palestine and Lebanon were represented at F4F and so were neighbours Israel, their religious, ethical and political differences easily set aside. So were many diplomatically divided nations (Morocco and Iran over their Western Sahara feud, Middle Eastern nations over the Syrian civil war, the United States, France, Germany, England, Australia and others with hosts Russia over the Novichok nerve agent poisonings in the UK in March this year). Historically tribally conflicted African nations such as Rwanda and Burundi both took part, and these countries all currently officially reported as being engaged in significant levels of deadly armed conflict: Ethiopia, Somalia, Algeria, Burkina Faso, Libya, Mali, Niger, Cameroon, Chad, Libya, Yemen, Central African Republic, Myanmar, Philippines. Mexico, fighting a vast and deadly drug war, sent a delegation to F4F, as did Nigeria, in the grip of its conflict with extremist group Boko Haram.
In all there were 1,500 blissfully harmonious children from 211 countries and territories, more nations than have ever attended an Olympic Games, and more numerous than the members of the United Nations.
They were brought together, along with their adult chaperones, coaches and media representatives, all expenses paid, by FIFA sponsor, Russian energy company Gazprom.
Football for Friendship (F4F) creator and Global Director Vladimir Serov refused to ignore the broader socio-political disharmony among delegate nations but bravely had struck a chord when he told the children and assembled adult helpers and supporters before an opening day crowd at Moscow's Spartak Football Academy: "In one team, playing together, there are kids of different nationalities, different genders, different physical abilities.
"I believe together we will be able to help them, our young participants, to find new friends from different countries, to learn how to play together, how to live together ... and I believe they will show people what the world could be without discrimination, without racism, war and violence."
And show them they did. The programme comprised three days of training for children designated football players, and 'masterclasses' for those designated Young Journalists. That was followed by a World Championship competition finals day (in which all 32 teams were named after endangered animals to promote conservation) and a Children's Forum to review, award prizes and wrap up the week. On the last day delegates attended the World Cup opening ceremony and first match, to see hosts Russia begin their amazing World Cup journey with a 5-0 win against Saudi Arabia. At the start of this thrilling, highly acclaimed World Cup, that ended with France defeating Croatia 4-2 to win their second World Cup star, one child from each F4F delegate nation had the honour of representing their country as flag carrier at the Luzhniki Stadium, before a global TV audience of 3.5 billion.
Throughout it all young participants were familiarized with and encouraged to discuss and practice the F4F key Nine Values, such as peace, honour, friendship and tradition.
The Children's Forum at the Moskvarium marine life centre featured personal endorsements of the F4F message from the likes of legendary Spanish goalkeeper Iker Casillas and Russian Under 17s manager and former international striker Aleksandr Kerzhakov. Russian President Vladimir Putin sent his own message, which was read out by Deputy Prime Minister for Social Affairs, Olga Golodets.
The children eagerly embraced the message. Tanzanian footballer Laigwanani Mollel, goalkeeper for the Big Turtle team, spoke for many when he said: “When I left Tanzania to come here I expected to learn some things but I learned much more than I expected. Everyone respects Football for Friendship and the Nine Values. I have made so many friends and I really now do think that everyone in the world has equal value.
“Where I am from the life is really hard but the opportunity I got to come here made me just like other people [from more affluent nations]. I learned equality.”
He said of the nine F4F values the most important was peace. “Because all of this that has taken place is possible only because there is peace.”
Of what he had learned, he added: “I am going to promote gender equality, because the community I come from still has gender inequality.
“I learned that I have to work hard and keep my goals and never give up.”
New Zealand footballer Jonty Burggraaf said Mr. Serov’s opening address, “made me feel very welcome and also made me realise how important what we are doing is."
His fellow New Zealand delegate, Isla McLeod Ganley, selected as a Young Journalist, said: “I enjoyed learning about the Nine Values. We did a role play about what we thought shows honour.
“As Young Journalists we learned how to get a message across and I liked that, and will try to put it into practice at home.”
Amqle Tuaratini of the Cook Islands, and Tahitians Terehau O Ioane Hucke-Soboul and Tavaihia Germain all said they shared the message they would carry home and had enjoyed the learning experience and made many friends from distant lands.
African Ziporah Mollel, another Young Journalist, from Tanzania, said she had learned a lot about social justice: "I liked learning about and discussing the Nine Values. Friendship and peace are my favourites. Peace is important in life,” and equally so was friendship, she said.
She added: “Football is really changing the world [in perceptions] between boys and girls”.
As we in Australia reclaim the night time hours for sleeping and not watching football on TV, the children’s words and the Football for Friendship initiative – that Mr. Serov has pledged to continue, with an announcement expected later this year – have shone a light of hope for a different, more inclusive and generous future and meaning for football.
For the professional game, even before the final, it was business as usual, with Portugal’s global icon and superstar Christiano Ronaldo transferring from Real Madrid in Spain to Italy’s Juventus for a reported 100 million Euros. But while third party agents are able to personally take tens of millions of dollars out of the game for brokering a single transfer, and FIFA is still reinventing itself following a corruption scandal, there are already fundamental signs of change even on the inside of the professional game.
World Cup winning superstar Kylian Mbappe of France, at 19 only three years older than some of the F4F participants, led the way immediately after the final by pledging his almost US$500,000 tournament earnings to charity.
Social justice pioneer and international player Juan Mata did not make the Spain squad for the World Cup, but some of his Common Goal charity team members represented their countries in Russia, including Mats Hummels of Germany, Shinji Kagawa of Japan, and Dane Kasper Schmeichel. These famous footballers are among the first to join Mata in donating 1 per cent of their income to active projects around the world helping disadvantaged people towards a better life using the immense power for good of football. What started as a trickle last year has gained momentum and now numbers more than 40 leading football professionals, men and women, who have pledged hundreds of thousands of dollars with Mata, and with increasingly ever more committing to join them.
Street Football World is an important football-related charitable initiative supporting Mata’s Common Goal project and it alone has a global network of more than 100 football-related charitable causes trying to change the world through football – and change football itself for the better at the same time.
There are dozens of others of enlightened football loving philanthropic pioneers, including Lengo’s own Emanuel Saakai, working in Australia and helping disadvantaged people in Tanzania towards a more fulfilling life.
Visionaries like these believe the spiritual, true custodians of football are not the venture capitalists, business investors and agents, or even professional coaches, administrators or the handful of lavishly gifted star players at the top. That the great game belongs to the millions of participants of every level, dreamers who subsist on determination, pride, spirit, to play and coach and support and volunteer for the pure love of the game, in many countries persisting – as with Lengo in Tanzania - despite abject financial poverty.
For the world’s children, who are its future and the future too of football, and who started the ball rolling in Moscow, their glorious, unprecedented coming together indeed promises to be a game-changer. Their boldly stated goal is no less than to ‘change the world’. In their vision of reclaiming the only true global game, the people’s game, in pursuit of a future of friendship and fairness, where everyone can play and prosper, to borrow a line from the game’s English founders, ‘football’s coming home’.
By Dominic Biggs